Monday, February 7, 2011



LOS ANGELES OPEN: If the 12th Is a Poem, It's by Poe

      The 12th hole at Riviera is a sylvan paradise. A painter would run for his easel, a poet, his quill pen. Keats would write an ode. Ah, wilderness.
   Lofty eucalyptus trees sway in the breeze. Birds chatter on the branches. The fairway is so green it hurts to look at it.
   It's crusted with history. Humphrey Bogart, no less, used to sit under the tree that guards the left entrance to the green, wearing a trench coat and holding a Thermos jug filled with God knows what. Clark Gable used to be in the gallery there.
   It's a nice place to hold a picnic.
   It's not so nice a place to try to make par. If you hold a picnic there, don't invite Davis Milton Love III.
   To him, it's a jail in Calcutta. The Casbah in Algiers. Devil's Island. Central Park at midnight. It should be roped off and destroyed.
   Davis got mugged there this week. Left for dead by this serial killer of a golf hole, which has criminally attacked so many golfers over the years. It lifted $72,000 right out of his pocket. So far as he's concerned, this hole is Elm Street. A monster's lair. Boris Karloff gets the part.
   It got him right between the eyes in the third round of the Los Angeles Open on Saturday.
   Davis Love would have won his fourth tournament and $180,000 if he just could have bogeyed this hole that day — in fact, if he just double-bogeyed it. Don't tell him about the pastoral greenery.
   What he would remember about the hole is that it's out of bounds on the left and bordered by a row of eucalyptus trees with overhanging branches on the right. To a golfer, there's nothing poetic about that. It's a Hall of Horrors, a great place to spend Halloween. The French Impressionists can have it.
   Davis came up to this snake-in-the-grass Saturday with flags flying, bands playing, crowds cheering, leading the tournament by four shots. He was dismantling Riviera shot by shot. He was — get this! — 17 under par, and he'd played only 47 holes. The record for 72 holes is 20 under par.
   He was cutting Riviera to ribbons with a driver and an eight-iron. The holes he wasn't making birdies on — he had five for the day already — he was lipping out. The field was wallowing in his wake.
   Then, 12 got him in the cross-hairs. His tee shot caught a branch and dropped straight down. His next shot landed in hip-high grass in a barranca. That's fancy talk for a ditch.
   When the smoke had cleared, he had shot a triple-bogey seven. He had, as it turns out, handed the tournament back to the field. A bunch of guys who had been going through the motions, shooting for second place, suddenly were brought up short. They were like a fighter who has been knocked down and is being counted out who suddenly looks up and sees his opponent has broken his hand.
   Fred Couples didn't inherit the L.A. Open Sunday. He had to fight for it.
   That's because he had his own personal hell-hole. He teed off Sunday with a one-shot lead and a, presumably, disheartened Davis Love playing alongside him.
   Now, the first hole at Riviera is a par-five in name only. The pros play it for an eagle. A birdie is a foregone conclusion.
   So, Freddie Couples flies his tee shot on No. 1 out of bounds. He reloads, hits his next one in the trees. He makes seven instead of the hoped-for three or the obligatory four. He not only lets Davis Love back in the tournament, he hands him the lead.
   The two played virtual match play the rest of the 17 holes. Then, they played actual match play for two playoff holes.
   Couples shot 70 with a ball out of bounds. If you think that's easy, you don't know golf. Or Riviera. But Davis Love III returned from Saturday's grave to shoot an admirable 69. It was good enough only to tie, but it was a remarkable score for a guy who had to feel he could have won this tournament on the last day with a one over par.
   Davis is not entirely sure he lost it on the golf course.
   Golf is a unique game in the annals of American sport. A golf crowd is like no other.
   You see, golfers hang together. They know how difficult their game is. So, they're meant never-not ever-to root against. They're supposed to root for. It's an unwritten rule. They're supposed to be like the race-tracker who pleads with his horse, doesn't abuse him verbally in the stretch. "Just a few more steps now, sweetheart!" he will soothe, versus the guy who yells, "Don't die now, ya dog!"
   Golfers are supposed to want everyone to succeed. It's very bad form to root for double-bogeys. You're supposed to cluck sympathetically over every missed six-foot putt and cheer if a guy runs down a sea-goer.
   Crowds in other sports are not so charitable. Crowd noise deliberately drowns out the signal-calling in pro football. Spectators behind the basket stick their fingers in their ears, hold up insulting signs and wave distractingly when the visiting team goes to the free-throw line in basketball. Baseball fans hoot, "Call yourself a hitter, Moose? You couldn't hit a balloon with a carpet sweeper!"
   A golf crowd never roots for a miss — or for the course. Bad form. The game is tough enough without ill will.
   Davis Love believes he perceived a major change in attitude. The jeering began early, he told the press as he came in after losing the playoff. "They were yelling ‘Nice 12th hole, Davis!' "he reported. He also heard them hissing "Miss it!" as he lined up six-foot putts. He heard them cheer when he did miss.
   Adds Love: "I expect people to pull for Freddie (Couples). He's very popular on the tour and very popular here. But I didn't expect them to root against me."
   This is a new development for golf-crowd participation. Not since the young Arnold Palmer has crowd hostility been a factor.
   For a lot of reasons, then, the 1992 L.A. Open was not a Love story. Love was not a many-splendored thing.
   But it wasn't the crowd that made him un-Loved. It was that 413-yard public enemy out on the back nine. No wonder Bogart liked to sit there. He knew what a sociopath it was. There was no love lost there. On second thought, there was a lot of Love lost.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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